Like A Beckett Play: An overwhelming sense of fragility; of life in suspension; of history sucking up every available atom of breathable air. When will New Zealanders stop looking up to a monarch and start looking around - to themselves?
IT WAS A SCENE that would have done Samuel Beckett proud.
An old woman sits primly in an armchair, warmed by an electric fire. The fussily furnished room is festooned with family photographs and ceramic knick-knacks. The atmosphere of the scene is stuffy and oppressive. There’s an overwhelming sense of fragility; of life in suspension; of history sucking up every available atom of breathable air.
Seated opposite the old woman is a middle-aged man with an over-eager smile. He is dressed like a prosperous provincial accountant, and it is clear that just being in the room with the old woman represents the fulfilment of a boyhood dream.
They are talking to one another – although it is difficult to say what about. The old woman’s conversation is polite but inconsequential. She speaks as if she’s reading the lines of a play once popular, but now only ever performed to modest and ageing audiences.
Undaunted, the middle-aged man listens intently: his attention not at all diminished by the old woman’s sing-song delivery. Clearly, some weird alchemical miracle is taking place. In the middle-aged man’s brain the old woman’s leaden commonplaces are being transmuted into the purest rhetorical gold.
Beyond this and all the other rooms in the castle, the world goes on its merry way. Fallen empires refuse to rise. Children are blown to pieces by suicide bombers. Billions are wagered on stock markets and trillions consigned to tropical tax havens. Ice melts in the arctic. Deserts advance. Lovers embrace.
But in this stuffy drawing room nothing changes. The old woman sits and talks inconsequentially to “galloping colonial clots” who hang upon her every word, believing, in spite of everything that they have seen and done and made of themselves, that the bizarre tableau of which they are a part is more than it seems.
That it matters.
Another notable scene occurs in Ettore Scola’s 1982 movie That Night In Varennes. The plot revolves around a group of travellers who get caught up in King Louis XVI’s abortive attempt to escape the revolution in Paris.
As the revolutionary government’s officials dither, a debate ensues concerning the nature of monarchy among those now stranded at the local inn. Some of the travellers, in true Enlightenment fashion, dismiss monarchy as irrational. Others remain convinced of its quasi-religious power. Its magic.
As if to prove both sides correct, the King’s servants roll into the room a tailor’s dummy adorned with the royal regalia of France.
In a wonderful cinematic moment, the waiting peasants bare their heads and fall to their knees. Even the sceptical intellectuals find it difficult to resist the urge to doff their hats and bow low.
Monarchy weilds only as much power as people are willing to give it. Our ancestors long ago stripped the British monarchy of all but a recondite residue of its former political authority. What is it, then, about Queen Elizabeth and her peculiar family that continues to enthral a clear majority not only of her British subjects, but of New Zealanders as well? What is it that could possibly make our ruthless, currency-trader Prime Minister sit like an excited schoolboy on the edge of his seat in a stuffy Balmoral drawing-room?
The Frankfurt School’s, Erich Fromm (1900-1980) would tell us that New Zealanders’ on-going love affair with the British Royal Family, and the monarchical institutions they inhabit, stems from our abiding fear of, and desire to “escape from freedom”.
To be truly human, Fromm argued, men and women must free themselves from all that obscures the realities of existence. Our unique capacity to reason and to love makes each human life a challenging and painful experience; it can also make life glorious and transcendent.
For too many of us, however, the dangers and uncertainties of freedom keep us in a child-like state of fear and neediness. Thinking for ourselves is difficult and risky; better by far to adhere to the collective wisdom. Ruling ourselves is also difficult and risky; better by far to be guided by the myths and traditions of the past.
Living in a republic there is nothing and no one to look “up” to: we can only look “around” – to ourselves.
But, in a monarchy, there is always somewhere safe to hide.
Even behind a prim old woman, in a stuffy drawing-room, in Scotland.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 4 October 2013.